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Should You Talk to HR First When You Have a Workplace Discrimination Complaint?

The EEOC received 61,331 workplace discrimination complaints in 2021. Of those, the leading complaint involved race, followed by sex, age, disability, national origin, color, and religion.  There were also 34,332 retaliation complaints. It’s reported that about 17% of the closed cases proved successful for the worker.

Racial discrimination cases can be one of the least successful cases, but that doesn’t mean you should sit back and let it happen. It’s important to stand up for your rights and fair treatment. Sometimes, it takes knowing the best way to file a discrimination complaint and who to talk to first.

While the EEOC takes these complaints, should they be the first agency you talk to, or do you start with your HR department? How do you file a workplace discrimination complaint?

Start by Keeping Track of the Evidence

Before you even make a complaint, gather as much evidence as you can. Get a notebook or journal and write down dates, times, places, witnesses, and statements that were made. If you have emails or notes, save them. Print them out to ensure they don’t get accidentally or deliberately deleted.

You do not have to be the victim of discrimination. Suppose you’re working and overhear your supervisors stating they refuse to promote your co-worker due to the applicant’s age, religion, or gender. That’s employment discrimination, and you could file a complaint on that other worker’s behalf.

Workplace discrimination can take place in employment ads, interviews and screenings, during hiring, terminations, transfers, or promotions, and in apprenticeship or training programs. It isn’t specific to hired employees.

Even after you’ve filed a complaint, keep taking notes and saving emails. This is especially important if your employer or co-workers retaliate against you. Retaliation is illegal.

Who Do You Contact With This Information?

Who you contact depends on your situation. Look at your employee handbook to see what it says about reporting employment discrimination complaints. If you’re part of a union, you may need to file the complaint with your union steward. Other workers may need to go to their supervisor or HR department.

You may not be comfortable reaching out to your supervisor or HR department, especially if any of them were responsible for some or all of the harassment you experienced. You don’t have to go through your supervisor or HR department if you’re not comfortable. You may not work for the company yet and experienced discrimination while interviewing for a job. There are other ways to file a complaint, starting with EEOC.

Complainants have a limited number of days to file an employment discrimination complaint, so don’t delay. In many states, federal employees have 45 days to reach out to an EEOC agent, other workers have 180 days to file with the EEOC. When you file a complaint, you’ll need to include your name and contact information, your title, the type of discrimination, and dates and times from the records you’ve kept.

California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) and the California Civil Rights Department (CRD) take discrimination complaints in California. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency that helps employees all over the U.S.

In California, you can file with The California Civil Rights Department (CRD) if civil rights laws were violated. This means the discrimination complaint must fall under one of these categories.

  • Age (40+)
  • Ancestry/nationality
  • Color/race
  • Disability, including mental health
  • Gender/sex/sexual orientation/gender identity or expression
  • Genetic information
  • Marital status
  • Medical condition/health
  • Military status
  • Pregnancy/childbirth/breastfeeding
  • Religion

What do successful discrimination cases look like? Here are a few examples.

Disability – A home warranty firm had to pay $175,000 to a temporary worker who’d never received any negative feedback and was told she was going to be offered a job directly with the company instead of through a staffing agency. When it was revealed that she had panic attacks, a supervisor asked that she be “separated” due to her “nervous breakdown.” When the supervisor was told he cannot terminate an employee due to mental health reasons, the supervisor pushed to have her removed anyway.

Pregnancy – A woman applied for a job with an automaker and received a conditional offer as long as she passed the physical, drug test, and background check. When the physical revealed her pregnancy, she never got a call from the company with her starting day. After several calls, she was told they were no longer hiring. She sued for pregnancy discrimination and received a $115,000 settlement.

Religion – One recent complaint was against a major airline that fired a pilot who refused to attend Alcoholics Anonymous. The Buddhist pilot wanted to be allowed to attend a Buddhist-based program instead and was denied the accommodation. He sued for religious discrimination and won a $305,000 settlement.

You can go online with the Cal Civil Rights System and file your complaint, call them, or mail a printable form. The CRD allows more time, up to three years if you’re an employee or one year for other discrimination cases.

If you file through the CRD, you need to have your employment information, such as a W-2 or 1099, and supporting evidence. If it’s related to disability discrimination, notes from your doctor and documents showing you asked for a reasonable request and were denied are important.

It’s possible to sue your employer for discrimination on your own, but you need to obtain a right to sue if this is your plan. You can look over a right-to-sue form to see what it entails before you actually fill it out and submit it to the DFEH. Once you file a right-to-sue notice, the DFEH or CRD can no longer investigate a complaint. If you choose this route, you need to work with an employment attorney. If you file a complaint with the DFEH or CRD, you can later file the right-to-sue should you want to.

What Happens Next?

The agent assigned to your complaint will investigate the complaint and talk to witnesses, employers, and interview you. Keep in touch if you have questions and provide additional information as quickly as you can. You’ll get a decision. If it doesn’t go in the direction you hoped, don’t give up.

Avoid the Stress and Partner With an Employment Attorney

It’s often easier to start by contacting an attorney who specializes in California employment law. Workplace discrimination laws can be difficult for workers to understand, and it helps to have a specialist on your side.

Shegerian Conniff specializes in employment law and workplace discrimination cases. We can help with all areas of discrimination in the workplace, including but not limited to breastfeeding, discrimination, race, religion, and sexual orientation.

Are you worried about paying an attorney’s fee? It costs nothing to talk to us about your complaint and find out if you have a valid complaint. If so, you don’t pay our attorneys. The fee comes from a percentage of your settlement or award.

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